Parents walked around Braden River Elementary School on Nov. 16 learning about the various project-based learning exhibits during an Innovation Expo.
They learned about fire safety, bats, recycling and more through those projects.
The expo served as an opportunity for Braden River Elementary to showcase its students’ work and what the school has to offer.
Joshua Bennett, the principal, said the expo is one of the ways the school is trying to retain its students as well as draw more students to the school through the School Choice program.
Schools across East County are exploring ways to showcase their programs and academics in order to attract families who are using the School Choice program.
Some schools, like Braden River Elementary and R. Dan Nolan Middle School, depend on School Choice to increase their enrollments which might fall off as their neighborhoods age.
Sixty-five percent of Braden River Elementary’s enrollment is made up of students whose families have chosen the school through School Choice, and who do not live in the school's zoned area. Braden River Elementary currently has 540 students.
Bennett said the zoned area for Braden River Elementary contains few new neighborhoods. He said the existing neighborhoods are aging.
“There are no more kids coming into our zone," Bennett said. "It’s only when people move out and a kid moves into that particular home (that they get a new student),” Bennett said. “We rely on the neighboring schools and communities to tour and then select us with a choice or hardship process. The challenge always is to get enough population in every grade, so if we can start early, in kindergarten and first grade, to get a robust number, typically that same cohort will go all the way through to fifth grade.”
Scott Cooper, the principal at Nolan Middle, said an aging neighborhood like Greenbrook means fewer students are enrolling in the middle school. Out of its 725 students this school year, 207 are enrolled through School Choice or hardship.
“There’s a lot of great schools in our area, so there’s a lot of competition you’re drawing from,” Cooper said. “Parents have options and choices so that’s why we have to be able to offer something for everybody. Parents feel they can come to Nolan and get not only a great education, but great opportunities for their children.”
Schools must compete for students now with the programs they offer.
Carlos E. Haile Middle School invited 600 students from not only its zoned areas but from around East County to a Future Student Night Nov. 13 to promote its programs.
Irene Nikitopoulos, the principal at Haile, said about 160 families attended with many of them being outside the school’s zone. She said many families from the northern part of Manatee County are interested in Haile because it’s a smaller school undergoing a campus-wide renovation, which will make the school feel brand new by its completion.
Bennett said his school doesn’t have a high mobility rate, meaning students aren’t leaving the school for another and that they continue their education from kindergarten through fifth grade at Braden River Elementary.
“If students leave our school, they typically leave out of state or really far away from our school,” he said. “If parents move within our school district, oftentimes, they make the decision to continue to drive them here. It’s 540 kids so it feels very intimate. But kids aren’t just a number. Parents are just as much a part of the school.”
Having a majority of students be from outside a school’s designated zone means Braden River Elementary is more intentional in ensuring families feel connected to the school through school events and activities such as trunk-or-treats, dances, bonfires and more.
Although having to depend on School Choice for enrollment can be challenging, Bennett said a positive is that parents who send their kids to Braden River Elementary are more invested in the school because it’s their choice.
The number of students in a school determines the number of teachers allocated to the school. Lower enrollment could mean fewer teachers available to provide various electives and programs.
“(School choice) is essential for our success because everything is driven by the amount of students who attend a school,” Cooper said.
Schools are starting new programs in the hope of providing something students want or need.
Nolan Middle School started offering pre-Advanced Placement classes in English and world history and geography. The goal of adding pre-AP classes was to provide academically challenging courses for advanced students who can go into high school ready to take AP classes.
A big draw for Nolan Middle has been its animatronics program, which started in 2022. Nolan Middle is one of two schools in the state with an animatronics program.
Cooper said if enrollment was higher at Nolan, the school could have more teachers allocated and it would be able to offer more classes in the animatronics program to meet the demand. The school can only offer two or three class periods, which is about 100 students, due to staff limitations.
Three years ago Braden River Elementary became a School of Innovation that focuses on project-based learning. For example, third graders made their own tiny house models last year, incorporating lessons in math, writing, reading and more.
The school also began its dual language program in which students in the program spend half their time learning in English and the other half in Spanish. The program currently is kindergarten through second grade.
Haile Middle surveyed its families and found they were in search of schools with higher academic rigor for accelerated students. In response, the school is starting an Advanced Scholar Program that will offer expanded elective choices in engineering and performing arts, college and career preparation, academic competitions and more.
“This is a way to get those sixth graders who are up to the challenge of those higher academic courses together in one cohort so they are challenging themselves,” Nikitopoulos said.
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.